Should It Be Comfortable ?

As I right this, the hot topic is Lance’s confession on Oprah. I’ve steadfastly not watched it thinking perhaps the best approach would be if the whole world chose to ignore him. Not give him a platform. So I decided not to mention him in my column –big fail there.

With the weather the way it has been I’ve had quite a focus on my swimming. I’m lucky to train with some very talented juniors who really push (lap) me. This morning as I approached the last 100 of a hard 400 repeat my arms start to scream at me to sacrifice technique in order to reduce the discomfort. I know to ignore this. This is when it counts, this is when good technique gets really engrained. When it starts to hurt you need to double your focus on the right movements.

It’s part of our sport to feel uncomfortable a lot of the time, which means there’s an important distinction to learn – good hurt, ache, pain, discomfort (chose your word) as opposed to the bad sort. I’m not sure anyone will ever know 100% of the time but time training and experimenting will help you decide.

With swimming being perhaps the least natural activity it uses muscles that are seldom used in that manner in normal life. It means that almost certainly if you’re doing it right you’re going to get muscle aches. Our natural reaction is to adjust what we do to remove the ache which means in swimming you need to concentrate since if you don’t there’ll be a tendency to adjust your movements (ie perform bad technique) to minimise the discomfort. So when you feel this good ache of proper technique focus to keep your stroke perfect as the ache builds. With swimming the volume most triathletes do I can’t imagine there’ll be many occasions of getting bad aches.

Cycling is quite the opposite of swimming and I don’t just mean that it’s on land and it uses a machine. With cycling you are in a pretty fixed position – feet attached to pedals, hands on bars in only a few different ways and bum on saddle or standing. With swimming there is nothing fixed, you have to provide the tension to work against. It means with cycling there are far fewer degrees of freedom and provided you have a good fit you should hopefully be able to ride pretty much injury free. So for me aches on the bike tend to be viewed as good.

Last summer I tried out 165mm cranks. This was a big change from the 175mm I had on all my other bikes. They felt comfortable. I persisted but over time I became less convinced. Was this good comfort or bad comfort? It felt like I struggled on hills and couldn’t put the power down and soon switched back. This evening I did my third bike test of the reason. I do a 1 minute best effort, 5 minutes easy then 10 minute best effort. The one minute definitely produces good pain and the 10 minutes good severe discomfort.

As for running, we’re halfway between swimming and running in that you propel yourself from a fixed point (the ground) but there are lots of degrees of freedom. This together with impact makes it the sport most likely to give you the bad sort of discomfort.

After a bout of illness in Autumn I returned to my running stupidly motivated and during a big hill repeat session convinced myself that the discomfort (pain really) in the side of my knee was the good sort. It wasn’t, I should have stopped. It took weeks of reduced running and biking to sort it. This is the sport where I’ve historically misjudged discomfort most.

After Kona 2007 I started to get discomfort in the ball of my foot. I discounted it as hot feet and over the course of 2008 it continued but didn’t seem to affect me at all (as long as I ignored it). This convinced me it was good discomfort. March 2009 the discomfort disappeared when I snapped my FHL Tendon. The specialist was stunned that I’d put up with the pain but when it slowly builds like that you just keep writing it off.

Since returning I’ve been super sensitive about running discomfort and apart from the blip this autumn I’ve erred on the side of caution. I would go as far to say that I’m only running if there’s absolutely no discomfort and that I’m using this as an excuse not to run. My run performances have suffered dramatically because of it.

So this year I’m trying to rebuild my judgement of good run discomfort. I’m slowly going to build, put up with some aches and see how I go.

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